Updated: Feb 24
This is my opinion, based on a combination of formal study and learning, personal experience, professional experience, the experience of my clients, and informal learning and reading.
Disclaimer: my work is aimed at people who are not struggling with eating disorders or who do not have active significant mental health problems who need more specialist help to manage what might be driving them to overeat. If you have any medical problems please consult your doctor before embarking on any weight loss or exercise programmes.
So here it is. There is no magic bullet, and it is not complicated. The no BS way to lose weight is to.....
****HAVE A CALORIE DEFICIT****
In other words, consume less energy than we use. That is the truth.
In this article I am going to cut through the BS and explain why it's important and how you can achieve it, without any false promises or claims of quick fixes. I won't lie to you. I know it is not easy. If it were, no one would be overweight. But it's also not as difficult as we make it out to be. We can make it easier, much easier. We just need to have the right combination of things in place.
"But Claire, I already know that I need a calorie deficit. It just doesn't work for me. I hardly eat anything and I just can't seem to lose weight".
Ok, so let's just think about it from a scientific point of view, and you will see that that is actually an impossible statement. So there must be more to it. Let's take a look.
Numerous scientific studies have shown that every human being needs a minimum amount of energy just to exist, to breathe, for the heart to beat, and to complete other functions to sustain life. That's BEFORE getting up and moving around, or doing any exercise. This is known as your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). Then there is your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE), which is the amount of energy you need to maintain your weight taking your activity levels into account. There are some good online calculators to help you find an estimate of what your BMR and TDEE should be. eg www.tdeecalculator.net.
We measure BMR and TDEE in calories, which are simply units of energy. You may remember the First Law of Thermodynamics when you did physics at school, that energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be transformed or transferred. In order to lose weight we need to burn the fat that our bodies have stored, as excess energy that was not needed when we consumed it.
A calculator will never be accurate but it will give you an idea of a starting point. Personally I find it more accurate to work out my maintenance TDEE by tracking my actual current food intake (accurately) and see what happens to my weight over time BEFORE trying to change anything about my diet or my activity. Then I can work out how much less I need to eat, and how much more I need to exercise to create the deficit needed. Our BMR can vary over time as we age, so it's a good thing to do every now and then, as even eating slightly more than we burn can cause gradual weight gain over time. For example, eating 2 bourbon biscuits a day over and above our maintenance level TDEE can cause us to put on 1 stone in a year!
Heavier bodies need MORE energy, not less.
Generally speaking, the heavier we are the higher our BMR will be, as the body needs MORE, not less, energy to function. After you have finished reading this article, have a play around on the TDEE calculator by changing the weight up and down and you'll see what I mean.
Scientists know that the amount of muscle we have can help to increase our BMR, and the heavier we are, the more muscle tissue the body will have as more is needed to move the body around. Muscle is grown through resistance, and moving a heavier body around provides more resistance so more muscle is needed. One of the reasons the Basal Metabolic Rate drops when we lose weight is because the body is no longer working as hard. Less bodyweight to move around means less resistance which means the body will naturally shed the excess muscle it no longer needs. This then makes it harder to not regain weight when we reach our target. This is also why it gets so much harder to lose those last few pounds! We can help to counteract this by consuming enough protein, and by doing resistance (weight) training, especially once we have reached our goal weight, to help preserve or increase our BMR, and reduce the risk of weight gain (the majority of which is usually as a result of gradually falling back into old habits).
An example TDEE calculation
So let's say you are a 50 year old female with a BMI of 30, according to the calculator your Basal Metabolic Rate (to just exist, as if you were laying in bed asleep all the time) is around 1400 calories per day. And if you are lightly active your MAINTENANCE level of calories, to neither lose nor gain weight, is around 1900. You decide to go on a diet on 1400 calories a day which means you will have a calorie deficit of around 500 calories a day. Since it takes a deficit of 3500 calories to burn one pound of fat, and 7x500 = 3500, it will result in a rate of weight loss of 1 pound per week. To not lose weight on this deficit would be impossible given what the body needs just to survive, never mind move around.
But let's say at the same time as starting the diet you decide to include some more exercise. Your body will adapt to that by holding on to more water, temporarily. Then you step on the scales and they've gone up (1 pint of water weighs a pound!). Well clearly then this approach isn't working, as you're putting on weight so you give up and go back to your old ways (which also, by the way, isn't going to work). But what you've not considered is that you have just weighed the extra water your body is holding. It's not fat gain. If you stick with it, you WILL get results with your weight.
Or maybe you lost a lot of weight in the first week, but very little after that. When we first start a weight loss programme it is very common to lose several pounds in the first week, especially if you have cut back significantly on calorie intake, as our bodies adapt and shed water as part of that process before making inroads into the stored fat. As mentioned previously, one pint of water weighs a pound. So if you lose 3-4 pints of water, that's your 3-4 pounds lost. Which is great, but it's not going to continue. So it is important not to expect this rate of weight loss to continue as to do so will set us up for disillusionment and disappointment and if we don't see it continue we can assume it's not working and so give up.
"But Claire, I've tried a diet of 1400 calories, and I stuck to it, and it just didn't work".
So if after doing this for a few weeks we're not losing fat (which is what we usually mean when we talk about losing weight) then we CAN'T be in a calorie deficit. If we're not burning the energy (fat) stored in our bodies we MUST be eating more than we think we are, or burning less than we think we are. It's very common to start off cutting right back and gradually allowing more calories to start creeping back in as we get hungry, or start off on a regular exercise regime, but gradually do less as our motivation wanes. Hunger is a very powerful feeling that is difficult to resist, especially when we're feeling emotional, tired, or stressed. And when we've had a long hard day, the last thing we feel like doing is exercising. So we put it off. Bye bye calorie deficit.
So what do we need to do to make sure we have a calorie deficit?
Track our food and activity - to work out what our TDEE is, and then work out the deficit we want to achieve.
Weigh and measure our food to ensure we are tracking accurately and getting that deficit.
Weigh and measure ourselves to see the impact of what we are doing and if we need to change anything.
Think of it like managing your money. You need to know how much you have got, and how much you are spending, in order to save money and not get into debt, and you look for cheaper options to spend your money on to make it go further.
"Oh but that's so BORING!!! And it's too much effort. I don't have time for that."
But if we don't know how much is REALLY going in, and the impact it is having, how can we start to fix it? Start with the intake (your food and drink), and then start looking at expenditure, (your activity levels).
How much are you actually eating?
How many calories are you actually eating?
How much exercise are you doing (time)?
How intense (effort)?
How much do you get up and move around during the day?
Weighing, measuring and tracking will really help you to understand more about your body, your food and exercise choices, and enable you to make much better decisions on a day to day basis, and stop laying excuses at the door of medication, hormones, menopause etc.
It’s not too hard, or boring, if you do it properly. There are lots of apps and websites that help to make it as easy as possible, such as www.myfitnesspal.com, and it can be really interesting, eye-opening, and most of all empowering as it can enable you to take better control. It's an extremely worthwhile exercise. You don't need to do it forever. Once you have made your plan you can just follow it, and track and measure every now and then to make sure you're still being accurate. I still track from time to time. It's the first thing I do if I feel things are slipping. It gives me full awareness and enables me to nip any problems in the bud.
Note:please don't take too much notice of the overall amount of calories fitness trackers tell you that you are burning, other than trying to beat what you've burned before, as they are notorious for over-estimating and can lead to us eating too much - that's for another article. Take more notice of the time taken, and the intensity e.g. your heart rate, how out of breath you get, and how much you sweat.
The bottom line
Losing weight is not easy. If it were, no one would be overweight and I would be out of business. The trouble is we want to be a healthy weight AND to eat what and as much as we like. But they are not compatible. We are in a state of conflict, a continual tug of war with ourselves, and we have to find a way to resolve it in order to be successful.
Furthermore, there is no doubt that medical conditions and medication make it harder, and some people don't tolerate certain foods very well. But it's NOT impossible. If we want to lose weight properly and for life, we have to learn about it, and all the things that affect our success, and put the effort in. No one else is going to do it for us. We have to get real. It's easy to fall for promises of a quick fix because we don't want to put the work in. But it's the only way.
There is no getting away from it, it is achieved by a combination of:
Consuming less energy than our bodies need (the NUMBER ONE difference).
Moving more - burning more energy to create a bigger calorie deficit. If we can't exercise then all our focus needs to be on what we consume.
Sounds easy. But what does that actually mean? We can do this by:
Improving our knowledge and understanding about what we are doing and what constitutes the healthiest types and right amounts of food and also how they might affect us. This is something else I plan to write about in more detail.
Controlling our portions.
Being active (more detail to come on this in another article).
Choosing unprocessed food - this will help with things like hormonal imbalances, insulin sensitivity, intolerances, energy levels, sleep quality. If we put crap fuel into our bodies from processed foods then we cannot expect them to function properly. It is possible do to this even on a low budget, and can also be extremely enjoyable if we take the time to learn how to cook lower calorie healthy meals.
Eating only when hungry. Do be aware though that conditions like diabetes can interfere with hunger signals and make us feel more hungry. However, if we know it's happening we can take more control and still do everything on this list. Do seek medical advice though if you think this applies to you.
Stopping when satisfied.
Snacking only when hungry, and on low calorie and high quality foods.
Getting enough sleep. Lack of sleep can have significant impact on efforts to lose weight as it can interfere with appetite signals, as well as ruin our resolve to stick to our weight loss plans, amongst other things.
Taking responsibility for learning about how to eat well, and for our actions. No one and nothing MAKES us put food in our mouths, we choose to do that.
Being truly honest about how much we are eating. That means every little mouthful, picking at things, snacking etc.
Tracking, or following a programme that does it for us (but we have to make sure we follow it properly) . I would still recommend tracking while following any programme, just to see how much you're really having and it helps us to understand more about what we're eating, meaning we're more able to manage when out and about or caught in a difficult situation.
Being realistic - not setting ourselves something we can't follow - just because it worked for our friend, relative or neighbour, it doesn't mean it will work for us - there is no one size fits all.
Accepting that it takes work, and actually doing it.
Accepting that it takes time and requires patience. There is no quick fix.
Accepting that results are not linear.
Doing these things CONSISTENTLY.
"Why can some people eat as much as they want and not put on weight and I just look at a cupcake and put on weight?"
There is no one answer, but it has been observed that naturally slim people tend to eat intuitively. It might seem like they eat a lot but often they will self-regulate across the week. If they eat more one day, they will naturally eat less on another, without thinking or trying. Food is not a big part of their lives, they don't usually spend lots of time thinking about it.
Overweight people tend to think about food a lot, especially when trying to restrict it. It often features a lot in their lives and they tend to override their bodies' signals like eating when not hungry, or eating to or beyond fullness.
The biggest issues I come across with people who want to lose weight are lack of portion control, snacking (often mindlessly), and choosing calorie dense foods. These are all habits that can be changed through knowledge and practice. Imagining ourselves as thinking like, and making decisions like the slim person can help.
"But Claire, eating 1400 calories a day is miserable and I'll get hungry. There's no way I can stick to that."
You are not alone, and it's one of the reasons so many people struggle as it's hard not to get hungry on that amount of calories, although not impossible. Certain programmes have some really good, filling, low calorie recipes. However, you might find it better to eat more, say 1600 - 1800 calories and exercise more/more intensively. It depends on your personal TDEE. You need to work out what that is first. As long as you are still getting a calorie deficit you will lose weight. You may need to be more patient regarding the rate of weight loss, as a trade-off, and need to figure out what is the right balance for you, or follow a programme. And I mean actually follow it. Check out my article on eating less without dieting for more on this.
If you want to have meals or days off, that's fine, but you still need to know how much you are having so that you can consider how you will make up for it, and therefore ensure that your overall calorie intake for the week is still in a deficit. One takeaway at the weekend can completely wipe out the week's deficit if we're not careful.
Once you know what your TDEE is, and how much you are prepared to cut back on your eating, and how much exercise you need to do, to create the deficit you want, you can create your own 1,2,3 or even 4-week plan, and just repeat it. Or follow one that's already made for you. But you HAVE to follow it consistently.
"That's all very interesting. But I've tried it and I can’t do that. I just don’t stick at it. Besides, I have an under-active thyroid, and have just gone through the menopause."
In my experience, personal and professional, in this scenario if we are truly honest with ourselves, we haven't done it for long enough, been consistent enough, or accurate enough. Yes you CAN do it. But the most likely reason it hasn't worked is that you just don’t WANT to do it enough to be consistent enough and do what it takes. Yet.
That’s why it’s not as simple as doing all these things described above. To actually DO them we HAVE to change what we WANT. By making it important enough. And we have to be REALLY clear about what we also DON'T want: we don't want to put on weight; we don't want to become ill as a result of weight-related diseases; we don't want to feel full and uncomfortable and not be able to sleep; we don't want to not fit into our clothes; and we don't want to hate what we see in the mirror.
So we also have to work on our motivation and commitment, so that we want to lose weight MORE than we want to give in to temptation and have that weekend overindulgence, so that we can then be CONSISTENT with our actions and we actually WANT to maintain a calorie deficit over time, not keep undoing it every few days because we can't stay on track, and wipe out any deficit we created. Then we don't need willpower.
In my personal and professional experience, the issue is not that our bodies don't lose weight on a calorie deficit, it's that we can't keep to the deficit. When we’re not fully focussed we can easily convince ourselves we are eating less than we are. It is incredibly easy to lie to ourselves about how much we consume. Watch Secret Eaters.
I love this programme as it actually confronts head-on people who say "I don’t eat that much", or "I don’t understand why I am putting on, or not losing weight".
I see so many times people say "it’s not working", or "I can't lose weight" and then later on, when they actually apply themselves to the process properly, because everything has fallen into place, they DO lose weight. These are the very same people who say, "it’s my hormones", "it's the pill", "it’s my thyroid", "it’s the menopause", "I have polycystic ovaries", or "it's because I can’t exercise".
Yes these factors make it harder, and I know because I've been there, but our bodies still needs a certain amount of energy to function and if we go below it we WILL be in a deficit. But we need to find a deficit that we can stick to. And that can vary from day to day, week to week, month to month and person to person, depending on what's going on in our lives. It's ok to change it.
We can manipulate the deficit by what we eat, how much we eat, how much exercise we do, and what exercise we do. There is so much more detail I could go in to about how (I'll save it for another article) but the bottom line is - eat less food (and be aware of how many calories you might be drinking), eat good quality food, get active, and know how much of everything you are doing.
Mindset is key
I am a firm believer that it’s 90% down to what goes on ABOVE the mouth, in other words our mindset and our decisions, and taking control.
And that means developing awareness of what we're doing, what we're eating, how we're feeling, what influences our behaviour and how the body puts on and loses weight.
So we need to acknowledge where we are now, and explore how our current eating habits are serving us. As they are serving us, or we wouldn't be doing them and we'd be losing weight.
If we don’t do this work, we run the risk of continuing to be thwarted by self sabotage and stuck in this permanent tug of war. We need to confront those things head on. Be aware of how they are affecting our behaviour. Doing so will reduce their power over us. Then our behaviour will be more likely to naturally align itself to our weight management goals. Willpower no longer required!
This is what I help people to do, to understand what's holding them back, and develop the right approach for them, so they can stick to it.
If you don’t want to do the tracking, or the planning, or the healthy eating, or the exercise, ask yourself how much do you really want to lose weight? Are you prepared to do what it takes? Are you that unhappy? Is it important enough?
There are plans that will do everything for you, which can help make it easier. By all means follow them - but you have to actually follow them - accurately. Whether you count calories or not, they are putting you in a calorie deficit. There are plenty of options to choose from. As mentioned, I would still recommend tracking, at least initially, when on a made for-you diet programme, just simply to help you understand what's going on and how it works. Knowledge is power.
Exercise is great, for so many reasons but the effort has to start with looking at what we are eating first as it doesn't matter how much exercise we are doing, if we are still eating more than we are burning, we won't lose weight.
In my experience it is better to lose the fat with diet being the main focus, whilst still being active daily, to ensure a deficit without restricting food too much, as we need the nutrition, and can stick to it more easily. Then we can really focus on exercise to maintain lost weight, including resistance training, while being able to be a bit more relaxed with diet, to help boost the BMR, as well as increase the TDEE.
What if I told you that you don’t have to lose all your weight in one go? Or using the same approach all the time?
There are no rules that say you have to lose all your weight in one go, or by doing the same approach all the time. Our bodies try to conserve energy, not lose it, so if we keep doing the same thing our bodies will adapt by using less energy which makes it harder to create a deficit. So it is actually quite a good idea to mix things up, or take diet breaks every few weeks. This can help to safeguard our BMR. It's one of the reasons I think I have been able to keep it off for 10 years, as I took my time and did it in stages, consolidating what I learned, and safeguarding my BMR. It also made it MUCH easier to stick to!
It's not just about knowing what to do, it's about developing and maintaining the right mindset. Both developing our knowledge and understanding and developing the right mindset take time and effort, and need to be done before we try to lose weight otherwise we are setting ourselves up to fail. We need to learn and understand what is really going on, and learn the skills to manage our behaviour in order to maintain weight loss for life. Once we do this, it really does become much easier.
If you found this helpful why not buy my e-book where I explore all this in more detail and provide activities to help you work through what's holding you back, and find the right approach for you, so that you can increase your chances of losing weight and keeping it off for good.
Until next time...